A comparison of the sound of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish immediately introduces a challenge: pronunciation and intonation do not only vary between the languages; they also vary within one and the same language.
This is easy to forget when you are talking about languages: Danish versus Norwegian versus Swedish. However, when we think about it, we all know that people from different parts of a country usually sound different from each other. In everyday talk, we are used to calling this variation dialects.
We will not speak of dialects here, because in linguistics, the word dialect is a specialized term used for a very distinct way of speaking that is restricted to a group of people in a specific geographical region. Due to increasing contact across dialect regions, many Swedish and Danish speakers nowadays use a regional variety (Dan. regionalsprog, Swed. regional standardsvenska), which is very common. Regional variety is sometimes described as “diluted dialect” (Dan. udtyndet dialekt). It is characterized by people using a nationally standardized vocabulary and grammar in speech (namely the same vocabulary and grammar that is taught in school and that is the official norm for written language). What remains as regional characteristics for spoken language is mainly a varying pronunciation of speech sounds and intonation.
In Norway, the situation is more complicated because the Norwegian both cherish and hold on to their spoken dialects to a higher degree. There is no word for a standard way of pronunciation, nor is there a clear idea of one. However, South-East Norwegian, used among other places in the capital Oslo, is generally perceived of as unmarked pronunciation in the public sphere. This variety thus seems to have a high status, if yet unconsciously.
So what regional variety should we choose as a means of illustration for Danish, Norwegian and Swedish pronunciation in this material?
At first, this question may seem out of place: Danish people talk about rigsmål, and Swedish people talk about rikssvenska. Both are thought of as “standardized national languages”, so at least for these two languages, this could be considered an unproblematic choice. For Norwegian, we could take second language teaching as an example. The practical problem of teaching pronunciation to foreigners is often solved in second language courses by teaching pronunciation based on the written language, which is either bokmål or nynorsk, depending on the municipality they live in. (Every municipality has either nynorsk or bokmål as its main written norm which is used by the official institutions there.) The second language learners are then likely to pick up and incorporate dialectal traits themselves (pronunciation of speech sounds, intonation, word forms) from their surroundings in their speech, but to begin with, the are taught pronunciation based on writing. So maybe we could choose Oslo pronunciation of bokmål as a basis for demonstration.
However, we decided that a material on intonation could not do without representing at least two different varieties from each language:
First, contrary to the impression that terms like rigsmål and rikssvenska make, there is no official norm for pronunciation in Denmark and Sweden. Those terms do not have any official status. This means that children are not trained in a standardized pronunciation in school, and there is also no official requirement that for instance moderators on radio and TV use a certain pronunciation (anymore).
Second, this presentation was not primarily conceived of as a course for speaking. It deals first of all with listening, and from the perspective of listening, you are likely to encounter the speech of native speakers from many parts of a country, if not in person, then through the media. Since it was not possible to use examples from many varieties within the scope of our project, two varieties of each language were included to counterbalance the impression that one language means one way of pronunciation. By demonstrating the differences between two varieties of each language, we hope that we can give readers who are interested of further varieties an idea of how they could extend the method of intonational description on their own.
Brink, Lars. 2019. “Udtale.” In: Hjorth, Ebba (Ed.). Dansk Sproghistorie. Vol. 3 Bøjning og bygning, pp. 235-356.
Lund, Jørn. 1984. ”Den danske skole og dialekterne: En studie i sejlads uden ror.” In: Sprog i Norden 1984, 19-35. https://tidsskrift.dk/sin/article/view/17648/15383 (accessed February 25, 2021)
”Hvad er forskellen på sprog og dialekt?” dialekt.dk https://dialekt.ku.dk/dialekter/sprog_standard_og_dialekt/ Copenhagen University. (accessed January 19, 2022)
”Vad är rikssvenska, när uppstod den och var kommer den ifrån?” Frågelådan, Institutet för språk och folkminnen (Swedish Institute of Language and Folklore). https://frageladan.isof.se/visasvar.py?sok=rikssvenska&svar=44972&log_id=852856 (accessed October 13, 2021)